The Black Country Living Museum is a pretty cool place to find out about the places we’ve come from. It’s also a great to find out about the people behind our history too.
In this episode we go back in time to find out what it was like when Queen Victoria visited the Black Country and why it was that she came. We find out a bit more about “back to back” houses, and the iconic postbox that’s mentioned in the story.
Queen Victoria Fact File
- Queen Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to 1901.
- She was born in London on 24 May 1819 to a German princess and an English prince.
- She became Queen of the United Kingdom Great Britain at the age of 18 after her uncle King William IV died.
- She learned to speak and read German and French well. Queen Victoria enjoyed dancing, drawing, horse riding and singing.
- Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert, in 1840. He supported science, trade and art in Britain.
- Victoria and Albert had nine children. They believed that a good family life and Christianity were very important. In general, English people followed their example.
- In 1861, Prince Albert died of typhoid fever and Victoria stayed away from public life.
- Britain became more powerful in the following years, and in 1877, Victoria got the title ‘Empress of India’.
- In 1897, she celebrated 60 years of being queen surpassed her grand father King George III of the United Kingdom of Great Britain .
- She was popular with her people by the time she died in 1901. She was queen for 63 years, seven months longer than any other king or queen of Britain before her.
Visiting the Black Country
It’s said the Queen came to Wolverhampton in the Black Country, on more than one occasion. The first time, the story goes, she was only a child and found the dirt and fires to be so horrible that she drew the curtains on the train she was travelling in.
But later in her life in 1866, she returned and in much better mood!
The 1866 Visit to Wolverhampton
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband died in 1861. She was so distraught that she withdrew from public life to mourn, in fact It was rumoured that she herself had died. A few years later in 1866, because the people of Wolverhampton had extended such kindness to the Queen in her time of mourning, she accepted an invitation to unveil a statue of her beloved Albert. No other town had managed to gain a response such as this, so you can imagine the excitement.
About the Statue
The statue was made by Thomas Thorneycroft and cost over a thousand pounds – a very large sum of money. At the Queen’s suggestion, Prince Albert was shown seated on his favourite horse on a large plinth in the Town Square.
The Royal coaches were waiting outside the station as the Queen’s train arrived. And as the Queen, the princesses and John Brown – her trusty servant, the band played the Royal Salute, then the bells rang out from St Peters, and the Hussars played the National Anthem.
The procession weaved through the town. Crowds lined the pavements. Many families were poor and wouldn’t have had the chance to take part in such a grand event and so to have such pomp and ceremony, it was like something from a dream! The procession wound through the town to where the statue was situated, on a plinth, at High Green.
It’s said the Queen unveiled the statue and was so pleased, she knighted the mayor on the spot and then there were banquets and fireworks that carried on into the night.
To mark the occasion they changed the name of High Green to Queen Square.
Posting a Letter in the 1800s
In the episode the old man remembers posting a letter about the event into the postbox that you can see today at the Museum. It’s a very special postbox in fact – here’s a bit more about posting letters in Victorian times, and the letterbox itself.
Writing a letter is important for all sorts of reasons, for business, or to keep in touch with loved ones. In the early 1800s it wasn’t as easy as sticking a stamp on and popping a letter in a postbox – in fact it was very expensive and time consuming and something only the rich could afford to do.
The price of sending a letter would increase depending on the distance it had to travel, even how many pages were inside. To save money people would write diagonally across what they’d already written rather than start a new sheet. It would cost more than a day’s wages in some cases. Even writing paper was a luxury – in our story the old man uses a paper bag for his letter.
Things improved around 1840 with the launch of the penny post – a way for everyone to simply send letters at an affordable cost. Queen Victoria herself was behind the push to change things.
The Hexagonal “Penfold” Postbox
Letter boxes arrived on our streets in the 1850s and the contract for making the first national standard design in 1859 was awarded to Cochrane & Co of Dudley.
Cochrane, Grove & Company also made the Penfold type of pillar box which you can see at the Museum today. It was designed by the architect, J W Penfold (1828-1909) and introduced in 1866.
Over a hundred of these distinctive hexagonal boxes survive. There were five different types and three sizes and the Museum’s example is the largest size of the commonest fourth type which has the aperture placed below the Royal coat of arms and a moulded surround to the collection plate. This particular box began it’s life installed on the corner of Baker Street and Blandford Street, London in 1865.
Livinig in Back to Back Houses
The children visit the old man at number 11. It’s a type of house called a “Back to Back” – do you know why?
“Back to backs” are built – like the name suggests, back to back under one roof so that neither has a back door or back windows.
They were built in large numbers through the nineteenth century in the industrial areas of the Midlands and the North. It was a means of providing cheap, high density housing for the working classes. You can explore the old man’s house at the Museum – it was part of a block rescued from Brook Street in Woodsetton by the Museum in c. 1990, it was believed to be the last example of this house type surviving in the Black Country.
The houses were built about 1852 by John Jevon, a colliery charter master. Numbers 10 and 11 consist of just one ground floor kitchen with a small pantry and two bedrooms above.
In 1891 the tenant in Number 11 was Henry Webb, a collier, who lived there with his wife, Mary Anne and their six children. Other occupants of the houses included a farm bailiff- a reminder that farming still played a part in the local economy – and a ‘sad iron moulder’ who probably worked at the nearby iron foundry in Woodsetton.
Activity: Write a letter
Back when Queen Victoria visited The Black Country everyone would have been writing letters to their friends and family to tell them all about her visit.
The old man had plenty to write about in the letter he sent. There’s nothing quite like receiving a letter full of interesting things. I wonder what you could write about, what might have you have seen around here that would make a good story? Why not put pen to paper yourself?